[OPE-L:8279] Re: Milios, et al, "Karl Marx and the Classics"

From: jmilios@hol.gr
Date: Mon Jan 06 2003 - 09:43:15 EST

Happy new-year to you all! This is a response mainly to Paul Zarembka’s [OPE-

Paul writes: “And if value is non-measurable (Althusser claims this also), 
then it is hard for me to understand what exactly we are supposed to be 
offering theoretically to the working class, e.g., as to what surplus value is 
when it cannot be measured”. 

By accepting this statement, I wonder if we can work as Marxist economic 
historians and claim that the ancient Greek-Roman societies were indeed class 
societies in which the slaves were subjected to exploitation, as they worked 
both for themselves and the slave-owner, who appropriated a surplus product, 
i.e. the product that the slaves produced during surplus labour time, beyond 
the labour time necessary for the production of their own means of 
subsistence. Since it seems to me that it is impossible to measure the surplus 
labour time in slave-ownership societies in general, and more so in those that 
actually existed in the past, eg. in Pericles’s Athens. Does this mean that 
there cannot be enough theoretical foundation of the thesis that class 
exploitation did actually exist in those societies, (and so ancient Athens or 
Rome shall be regarded as classless societies)? 

Besides, I believe that Marxist economic theory contains much more than the 
simple idea that in all class societies there is production and appropriation 
(by the ruling classes) of a surplus product, i.e. surplus labour. It is not 
enough to stick to this idea, then identify labour expended with value, 
further consider one hour of labour (with socially average characteristics of 
productivity and intensity) to be the measure of value and (in case that one 
feels that a further empirical verification is needed) devote oneself in 
proving (by direct measurement or mathematical calculations) that the sum of 
values equals the sum of prices and simultaneously the sum of surplus values 
equals that of profits. Marxist economic theory exceeds this point by focusing 
on the specific historical forms of surplus product and surplus labour; this 
is indeed what distinguishes capitalism from any other society of surplus 
product appropriation (i.e. from any other class society). To stick to the 
idea of surplus labour (and its measurement) means, I think, to miss Marx’s 
main point.

As Marx writes, “Capital has not invented surplus-labour. Wherever a part of 
society possesses the monopoly of the means of production, the labourer, free 
or not free, must add to the working-time necessary for his own maintenance an 
extra working-time in order to produce the means of subsistence for the owners 
of the means of production, whether this proprietor be the Athenian καλός κ’ 
αγαθός (kalos k’ agathos), an Etruscan theocrat, a civis Romanus, a Norman 
baron, an American slave-owner, a Wallachian Boyard, a modern landlord or a 
capitalist” (Marx 1990 [Capital, Volume one, Penguin Classics, London]: 344-
45). “The essential difference between the various economic forms of society, 
between, for instance, a society based on slave-labour, and one based on wage-
labour, lies only in the mode in which this surplus-labour is in each case 
extracted from the immediate producer, the worker” (Marx 1990: 325). The 
notion of surplus value does not simply refer, therefore, to a quantity of 
surplus labour expended. It is a complex key notion which deciphers the 
structure of the capitalist relation of class exploitation and domination.
In this context, Marx’s theory of value constitutes a monetary theory of 
value. We do not have “two worlds”, on the one hand value and on the other 
money (as a means of measurement or a means of circulation of values). 
The “two worlds” picture is typical not only for Classical and Neoclassical 
theory, but also for some interpretations of Marx. However, I believe that it 
fails to conceptualise the Marxian notion of value.

Value is determined by abstract labour; however, in my comprehension of Marx, 
abstract labour does not constitute an empirical magnitude, which could be 
measured by the stopwatch. It is an abstraction, which is constituted (it 
acquires a tangible existence) in the process of exchange. ITS DIRECT AND SOLE 
FORM OF APPEARANCE IS MONEY. Value can be expressed only by means of money. 

In the 1859 CONTRIBUTION… , in the GRUNDRISSE, and in Parts 1-3 of Volume 1 of 
CAPITAL Marx illustrates the tenets of his monetary theory of value, which 
constitutes a radical critique of Ricardo’s non-monetary approach of “labour 

On the empirically non-tangible (by itself non-measurable) character of value 
Marx writes: “The reality of the value of commodities differs in this respect 
from Dame Quickly, that we don't know ‘where to have it’. The value of 
commodities is the very opposite of the coarse materiality of their substance, 
not an atom of matter enters into its composition. Turn and examine a single 
commodity, by itself, as we will, yet in so far as it remains an object of 
value, it seems impossible to grasp it. (…) Value can only manifest itself in 
the social relation of commodity to commodity” (Marx 1990: 138-39).
On money, as the exclusive form of appearance of value he notes: “It is the 
adequate form of appearance of value, that is a material embodiment of 
abstract and therefore equal human labour” (Marx 1990: 184). “It has become 
apparent in the course of our presentation that value, which appeared as an 
abstraction, is only possible as such an abstraction, as soon as money is 
posited” (Marx 1993 [Grundrisse, Penguin Classics, London]: 776). “(…) value 
requires above all an independent form by means of which its identity with 
itself may be asserted. Only in the shape of money does it possess this form. 
Money therefore forms the starting-point and the conclusion of every 
valorisation process” (Marx 1990: 255). In Marx’s system of thought, all forms 
of barter (or the non-monetary equilibrium systems of barter 
between “production sectors”, like the Sraffian “linear production systems”) 
should be rejected, as all exchange transactions are made up of separate acts 
of exchange of commodities with money, which means that commodities are by 
definition price-carrying products. Prices are determined in the process of 
commodity production, i.e. in a historically unique process of (capitalist) 
production-for-the-exchange, a process which unites immediate production (in 
the narrow sense) with circulation: “Commodities do not then assume the form 
of direct mutual exchangeability. Their socially validated form is a mediated 
one. Conversely: through the relation of all other commodities to linen fabric 
as the form of appearance of their value [the supposed by Marx general 
equivalent at that point of his analysis, J.M.], the physical form of linen 
material becomes the form of direct exchangeability between these commodities 
and all other commodities and as such their direct or general social form” 
(MEGA II, 5 [Das Kapital, Erster Band, Hamburg 1867 (1983), Dietz Verlag, 
Berlin]: 40). “The social character of labour appears as the money existence 
of the commodity” (Marx 1991 [Capital, Volume three, Penguin Classics, 
London]: 649).

Even when he starts developing his theory of the value-form, he notes that in 
the simple value form we do not have two commodities of pre-existing (i.e. 
measured independently, eg. by the quantity of “labour expended” for their 
production) equal value exchanging with each other, but only ONE COMMODITY 
(relative form), whose value is measured in units of a use value (equivalent 
form, serving as the “measurer of value” of the commodity in the relative 
form): “But as soon as the coat takes up the position of the equivalent in the 
value expression, the magnitude of its value ceases to be expressed 
quantitatively. On the contrary, the coat now figures in the value equation 
merely as a definite quantity of some article” (Marx 1990: 147).

It is however true, that in order to illustrate surplus-labour as the portion 
of the total labour, (the portion which is appropriated by the capitalist), 
Marx refers (from Chapter X, Part 3 of Volume 1 onwards) to value of a 
commodity as if it was in itself an empirically measurable figure, e.g. “value 
created by n hours of labour of average intensiveness”, “forgetting” that the 
labour deployed in this instance is abstract labour (a concept not to be 
counted among empirically tangible measures), and also “ignoring” the fact 
that value is measurable only by means of another “thing”, as it can be 
manifested (appear) only in the form of, i.e. through, the general equivalent –
 in other words through money, and so measured not in hours of labour time but 
in units of the general equivalent – precisely in units of money.

This simple presentation of surplus-value as surplus-labour does not mean, 
however, that one shall put aside Marx’s monetary theory of value (as 
developed, e.g., in Parts 1, 2 & 3 [Ch. I-VII] of Volume 1 of Capital) and to 
treat Marx as a critical exponent of the Classical theory of value (as “labour 
expended”). Marx’s monetary theory of value demonstrates that value and prices 
are not situated at the same level of analysis. They are not commensurate i.e. 
qualitatively similar (and so quantitatively comparable) entities. Money is 
the necessary form of appearance of value (and of capital) in the sense that 
prices constitute the necessarily “distorted” (and only) form of appearance of 
the value of commodities. The difference between values and production prices 
(i.e. prices ensuring the average general rate of profit for the whole 
capitalist economy) is thus not a quantitative one, assuming that the latter 
simply arise from the former through a “redistribution of value among 
capitalists”. It is a difference between two non-commensurate and so non-
comparable quantities, which are, though, intertwined in a notional link, 
which connects causal determinations (values) and their forms of appearance 
(prices). In Vol. 1, Marx utilised the notion of surplus labour in general (as 
equivalent to surplus value and in “abstraction” of money) only to sidestep 
the concealment effects of exploitation created by the money-relation. He did 
not adhere to the Classical notion of value as “labour expended”, at least in 
his great self-published work, Volume 1 of Capital.

At this point I may deal with a comment made by Jerry [OPE-L:8270], who 
writes: “Even if one challenges whether value is measurable (as Milios et al
apparently do) it does not follow that the social relation itself is
intangible”. I agree that the social relation itself is “tangible”, however 
through (ideological and social) forms which conceal the “flow of cause and 
effect”, i.e. the exploitative character of this (capitalist) social relation. 
The reason for Marx’s analysis in Vol. 1, Ch. X onwards, of exploitation on 
the basis of surplus-labour, (a notion which does not reflect the specific 
difference of the specific mode of production under examination), and not in 
relation with the specific forms under which this surplus labour appears in 
capitalism (profit and money relations), is not a supposed “measurability” 
of “labour expended” in the capitalist mode of production, but the existing in 
it self-generating consequences of concealment of class exploitation: The 
subordination of labour to capital imposes the capitalist as the producer of 
commodities and regulates exchange ratios between commodities in accordance 
with production costs. Profit is thus presented as proportion of the advanced 
capital, so that “surplus-value itself appears as having arisen from the total 
capital, and uniformly from all parts of it” (Marx 1991: 267). In all modes of 
production there exist self-generating consequences of concealment, but their 
tendencies might be in opposite directions, as Marx noted with regard to 
capitalism and slave ownership: “In slave 1abour, even that part of the 
working day in which the slave is only replacing the value of his own means of 
existence, in which he therefore works for himself alone, appears as labour 
for his master. All the slave’s labour appears as unpaid labour. In wage 
labour, on the contrary, even surplus-labour, or unpaid labour, appears as 
paid. In the one case, the property-relation conceals the slave’s labour for 
himself; in the other case the money-relation conceals the unrequited labour 
of the wage labourer. (...) All the notions of justice held by both the worker 
and the capitalist, all the mystifications of the capitalistic mode of 
production, all capitalism’s illusions about freedom, all the apologetic 
tricks of vulgar economists, have as their basis the form of appearance 
discussed above, which makes the actual relation invisible, and indeed 
presents to the eye the precise opposite of that relation” (Marx 1990: 680). 
In both cases (capitalism, slave ownership) there exist in the mode of 
production necessary self-generating consequences of concealment, but their 
tendencies are in opposite directions. This is of particular importance for 
the political relations of domination and the formation of ideological 
constructs in each mode of production. 

It is thus a problem of a different order when Marx at certain points of 
Volume 3 (“transformation of values into prices of production”, “ground rent”) 
distances himself from the implications of his own theory (non-
commensurability between value and price) and draws a quantitative comparison 
between values and production prices and through mathematical 
calculations “transforms” the former into the latter. In this way, albeit 
tacitly, he adopts (he retreats to) the Classic viewpoint that values are 
entities that are qualitatively identical and therefore quantitative 
comparable (i.e. commensurable) with prices.

Concluding, I may say that the discussed book (KARL MARX AND THE CLASSICS) 
argues that in Marx’s work (mainly in Vol. 1, but also in all his major 
writings of the period 1857-67, etc.):

a) There exists a system of notions which shapes a monetary theory of value; 
this theory constitutes a radical critique of (a rupture from) the Ricardian 
theory of value (conceived as “labour expended”). It consists the Marxian 
economic theory par excellence, which shall be further developed by Marxists, 
as it is the only theory that can critically interpret contemporary capitalism 
(crises, speculation, the endogeneity of money, the expansion of the monetary 
sphere, etc.).

b) The dominant interpretation of Marx’s theory by Marxists is “Ricardian”, in 
the sense that it ignores Marx’s monetary approach, it misinterprets Marx’s 
elaborations on the basis of “surplus labour” (forgetting Marx’s warning 
that “capital has not invented surplus-labour”) and focusing on weak points of 
Marx’s argumentation, such as the “transformation of values into prices of 

c) Marx himself retreats in the theoretical system of (Ricardian) Political 
Economy at several points of his work, especially when he deals with 
the “transformation of values into prices of production” and with “absolute 
ground rent”. Such ambiguities or contradictions should be expected not only 
for Marx but also for any attempt to create a new theoretical discipline on 
the basis of the critique of an established system of thought.

d) Finally, the book claims that “Marxian theory is attenuated when Marxists 
do not comprehend Marx’s ambivalences towards Political Economy, i.e. the 
existence of conceptual contradictions and, much more important, of a second, 
non-Marxist, discourse in his writings. Every ‘sanctifying’ attitude towards 
Marx, presenting him, as the inculpable master who never made a single false 
step, practically blurs the scientific and heuristic kernel of Marx’s 
analysis, as it identifies it with the Ricardian element, present in some of 
his elaborations” (p. 208).

In solidarity, John.

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